‘Poltergeist’ and the Inherent Frustrations of Movie Remakes

The key difficulty in talking and writing about movie remakes is simple: it’s very hard to not just spend 500 or so words asking, over and over, “Why?” Such films seldom improve upon their original, at least anymore; once was the time when a John Huston would remake an unloved picture like The Maltese Falcon, but these days the entire reason for a remake is to capitalize on name recognition and leftover nostalgia. Yet such qualities are what end up crippling the remakes, ensuring a curiosity factor (and, y’know, dollar) but little more. And the essential paradox of the remake has seldom been as explicitly — and often frustratingly — actualized as it is in Gil Kenan’s new Poltergeist, which assembles a very gifted group of people to go through another movie’s paces, a cover band you wish would just play their own songs.

The original 1982 Poltergeist, directed by Tobe Hooper, co-produced and co-written (and, the whispers have it, co-directed) by Steven Spielberg, was one of the scariest movies of the era, a nightmare twin to E.T. (which followed it into theaters a scant seven days later) in which the pleasant life of a typical suburban family is disrupted by literal skeletons in their closet. It became a huge hit — no doubt aided by its PG rating, a decision eight-year-old me would still like to ask the MPAA about — and a pop culture touchstone, thanks to its oft-quoted dialogue (“They’re heeeere,” “This house is clean”), nightmare-fuel imagery (the tornado bedroom, the reaching tree, the clown, that goddamn clown), and family-next-door storytelling. It begat two not-very-good sequels, sinister rumors of a “curse,” and most of the haunted-house flicks of the past three or so decades.

Rosemarie DeWitt, Kyle Catlett, and Sam Rockwell in the "Poltergeist" remake

The new Poltergeist, from director Gil Kenan (Monster House, City of Ember) attempts to position itself as more of an adaptation than a remake, if you catch my drift. The makeup of the family at its center is the same, but the names have changed; so has their backstory. In the original film, Craig T. Nelson’s patriarch sold houses in the blooming development with a secret, which is how they got there and why they stayed; such a plot point obviously won’t work in this post-recession era, which instead finds dad (Sam Rockwell) out of work and the family downgrading to a home in a decidedly lesser neighborhood. It’s “the least sucky one we’ve seen,” insists mom (Rosemarie DeWitt), so they move in and make the best of it. And then things start flickering.

These early scenes are the most promising — and, not coincidentally, the ones that wander farthest from the source material. The screenplay is by David Lindsay-Abaire, the Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatist behind Rabbit Hole, and he invests the script with a dash of psychological heft and 21st-century anxiety; Rockwell and DeWitt, who share an easygoing, funny chemistry in their two-scenes and play their dramatic beats without a wink, give the picture a much-needed shot of humanity.

But there’s also a weird sense of rushing through the setup, which is exactly where you’d like the movie to relax a little and let the talented writer and cast shine. The remake runs a good 20 minutes shorter than the original, and that clearly came out of the setup, as horror movies are rarely allowed to do the kind of patient, slow-boil build that Poltergeist ‘82 does. The cheap jolts come early, and by the handful, and if the showoff 3D didn’t make clear the “more is better” ethos, witness the fact that the youngest son is terrorized not by a clown doll, but a whole box of them. Like a dozen. It is not a dozen times scarier.

Kennedi Clements in the "Poltergeist" remake

And horror movies are seldom allowed to live in the imagination the way the original film does, which leads to the remake’s biggest miscalculation: visualizing the youngest daughter’s experience on “the other side,” from 3D hands over the lens and her arms when she’s taken to a CGI landscape of moaning corpses and skeletons during the rescue mission that occupies the second (and far more slavishly copied) half of the movie.

But this lands us back at the original problem. Had such flourishes been deployed by some random horror movie, they wouldn’t draw any ire. This isn’t just some horror movie, though; it’s a horror movie called Poltergeist, and compared to the original, that stuff doesn’t work, even if it might have outside the confines of that comparison. Any remake is going to be considered next to the original, and unless the remake is really exceptional, it will suffer in that comparison.

Yet if these filmmakers, with this cast, had just changed a few more details and freed the movie from the responsibility of the Poltergeist name, we might be talking about a pretty decent little haunted-house flick — something along the lines of Insidious, a well-populated Poltergeist homage rather than an outright retelling. The performances are certainly commendable (the indie-friendly cast also includes Jane Adams, Jared Harris, and Saxon Sharbino), and there are even a couple of inspired, original sequences that result in a good scare or two. But that, unsurprisingly, is not enough.

Poltergeist is out today.